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Feminist art in the public eye

Winning hearts and minds can be as important as direct action.

Art by Thomas Sargeant.

Feminist art is intrinsically activist art. While feminism is admittedly a loose term that encompasses a whole range of beliefs about our world and how to change it, all of these definitions involve reshaping the world as it stands to achieve equality of sex and gender. Activism can be just as tricky to pin down – is it activist to convince your family to believe in a cause? What about convincing one hundred people, or a thousand? The line between advocacy and activism is blurry, however, activism can be as directly involved as civil disobedience, or as simple as advocating for a cause on any scale. Whilst the term activism might bring to mind protests, petitions, or policy change, these actions at their most basic level are organised and populated by individuals who believe in a cause. Art has the power to change minds and influence beliefs, which is a vital part of building any movement. Therefore, even if an artwork with a political statement does not directly contribute to reform, it must still be considered activist art through its power to bring individuals into an activist movement where they are then able to foster change.

 The goal of feminist art, according to artist Suzanne Lacy, is to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes.” In the 1960s-70s, feminist artists sought to achieve this goal within the context of second-wave feminism by fighting against social and legal inequalities such as discrimination and reproductive rights, which were at the forefront of political conversations of the time. In the style of second-wave feminist action, feminist art of this era often broke out of the context of galleries, which were criticised as restrictive and sexist institutions by many artists, activists, or both in the form of groups such as the Guerilla Girls. Artists operating in and outside of galleries sought to disrupt the status quo through taking political discourse into the public stage, posing questions to audiences to make them reconsider their beliefs. This is seen in the works of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, artists whose works occupy spaces that vary from alleyways, trucks, and billboards to the ever-present gallery wall. Wherever an artwork exists and is able to be seen, it has the ability to influence people and the way they see the world.

 The public nature of Holzer and Kruger’s artworks are key to their effectiveness in achieving their goals, as entering into the public sphere allows artists to more effectively manipulate public discourse. Holzer’s Truisms series presents huge numbers of confident, high modality statements to its audience without context, prompting viewers to decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree with claims ranging in contentiousness from TORTURE IS BARBARIC and ROMANTIC LOVE WAS INVENTED TO MANIPULATE WOMEN to MURDER HAS ITS SEXUAL SIDE. The series includes claims that are arguably outright contradictory (CHILDREN ARE THE MOST CRUEL OF ALL, CHILDREN ARE THE HOPE OF THE FUTURE) in order to highlight the interpretive responsibility that Holzer places on her audience. Truisms takes care not to value one ideology or statement over another, and by doing so Holzer arguably does not privilege a directly feminist nor activist voice. However, her art reflects feminist activism regardless because of how it brings gender discourse into the public sphere. Holzer herself noted in 1986 that “I do want my voice to be heard and, yes, it’s a woman’s voice.”

Whilst Holzer’s artwork can be found in galleries from Canberra to Zürich, her work comes to life when freed from gallery spaces. She created, for example, condoms with MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE printed on them and a San Francisco stadium JumboTRON emblazoned with RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY. Holzer’s Truisms were replicated on shirts, LED signs, tapes, prints, and postcards, replicated for consumption and wider dissemination. Through decontextualising her text from its context, audiences are forced to constantly consider and reconsider the meanings of and our opinions on her ‘truisms’, difficult and controversial phrases such as DECENCY IS A RELATIVE THING and ANGER OR HATE CAN BE A USEFUL MOTIVATING FORCE, evaluating them based on context and our own opinions  as truths, lies, or art. The highly public and exposed nature of these artworks, alongside their direct and unambiguous textual messages and gendered language make them effective in challenging dominant ideologies. Whilst these works can indeed influence beliefs and attitudes, it remains to be seen whether discourse in and of itself is able to bring about tangible change.

 Holzer’s work has become much more explicitly activist in recent years. Through her artwork IT IS GUNS (2018), she projected vivid testimonies and poems against gun violence on the facade of the Rockefeller Center, and with ANTI-GUN TRUCK (2019) she sent trucks across the United States with similar messages displayed on their sides in the wake of mass shootings. These inherently partisan messages against gun violence mark a clear departure from Holzer’s earlier works that tended to shy away from arguing a singular, sincere message. Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) presented the idea that YOU GET AMAZING SENSATIONS FROM GUNS. YOU GET RESULTS FROM GUNS, a sentiment that I feel she would be unlikely to replicate today, however abstracted from her own voice.

 Employing comparable postmodernist practices of public art and textual emphasis is the artwork of Barbara Kruger, whose iconic ouvre has formed a core part of the feminist canon. Contrasting Holzer’s work, Kruger often does not seek interpretation or dialogue with her audience, rather offering bold accusations against patriarchal systems. This challenge is evident in her 1981 work Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face), directly addressing the audience with a second person possessive pronoun in order to critique the male gaze and objectification of women. This accusatory text is layered over an image of a female bust in profile, strengthening the representation of a gaze through what art historian Patricia Simons describes as “averted eye[s] and [a] face open to scrutiny.” The use of a bust specifically creates a link between Kruger’s criticisms and the context of the art world.

However, Kruger was concerned with more than the high art world, and made a foray into the world of public art with the creation of a silkscreen print Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) for use on a poster for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. The Women’s March on Washington was a march in favour of reproductive health rights, with Roe v Wade and thus a woman’s right to abortion at risk of being overturned. The work depicts a black and white image of a woman’s face with the right half inverted, overlaid with the text YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND. The duality contained within the work through its split into left and right, positive and negative, emphasises the harsh reality of what is at stake – women’s bodily autonomy. Kruger’s work, through a combination of dominant text, high-contrast photography and public engagement, allow for her work to be highly effective in influencing public discourse on gender politics and feminism.

 However, we again have to ask ourselves how these artists and artworks contribute to an activist project. Each artist has been involved with radical art groups – Holzer with ‘Colab’ and Kruger with ‘Artists Meeting for Cultural Change’ – that advocated for cultural change and against issues such as Reaganism, racism, and gentrification. They achieved their goals not only through exhibiting shows in galleries or independently, but directly organising protests and boycotts and distributing resources.

 We must examine both Kruger and Holzer’s works through their direct and indirect engagement with political systems. Kruger’s contribution to the March on Washington is a direct engagement with policy change, but it is not fair to judge that as any more effective praxis than her criticisms of the male gaze, or her world-famous anti-capitalist works seen by millions in galleries. In regards to Holzer, we cannot say that wheat pasting her morally unaligned Truisms around New York is any less effective in inspiring change than her anti-gun trucks. Quantifying the impact of art is difficult, if not impossible. Reaching someone with socially engaged art – whether within a gallery, on the streets or at a protest – is valuable to activist movements, because it brings people into activist spaces by spreading awareness about the issues.

Creating great activist art isn’t necessarily about organising a campaign or a march, it can be as simple and accessible as convincing someone that a cause is worth fighting for.